Friday, September 25th, 2009

Preparing for a Self-Directed Writer’s Retreat

I talked to the Baltimore Chapter of the Maryland Writer’s Association a few months ago about “Getting the Most out of a Writer’s Workshop.”

Much of what I talked about related to instructor-led workshops. But what about “self-directed” workshops or retreats? No agenda exists for them, not even a boilerplate one can subscribe to.

So, how do you prepare?

(Or do you toss preparation to perdition and ignore planning?) Maybe your idea of the perfect writing retreat is to grab your laptop and just sit down and write…?

You could do that.

I agree that taking that approach might result in extraordinary verbiage…but what will you have accomplished other than obtaining the writing equivalent of a high score?

I think if you take a more focused approach: get your writing affairs in order and make some goals, you’ll enjoy a more satisfying experience. That’s what I do.

I’m gearing up to go on retreat in October with my face-to-face critique group. I’ve no doubt I’ll spend some time with them while we’re away for the week (we haven’t discussed how much), but I believe we’ll be spending the bulk of our time away together…alone.  And I plan to use that time to target projects to get off my desk and submit to various markets. I’ve no doubt in doing so that I’ll manage satisfactory, if not a veritable high score, of word count along the way.

Discounting everything about the retreat except my writing (What should I take? What should I wear? What should I bring? Etc.) these are the things I’m doing to prepare:

1 – Cleaning Up My Writing Files – Both Paper and Electronic

I create a new electronic file for each article, story or chapter I’m working on almost every time I open it. There’s a reason for this: I might change something so drastically that “track changes” can’t revert. Keeping the old file allows me to do that. Or, the file may be corrupted as I carry it around on my thumb drive – I’ll have the previous file for retrieval.

Mostly, I maintain a separate file so that I can see how the word count grows each time I work on it. But those files tend to multiply rapidly…often in the wrong directory as I go from desktop to jump drive to laptop. They need some cleaning up.

My paper files aren’t so bad, but I have many projects running all the time: so there are lots of pieces floating around. Likewise, there are usually scraps of “story ideas” laying about: prints from science journals which caught my eye, something torn from a newspaper, lots of scribbled notes, etc.

I’ll be spending several hours putting it all away. And then I’ll be dusting off the desk and pushing the chair “just so” under it.

Why do this?

When I was younger and still lived with my parents, my Mom encouraged the family to clean the house top to bottom before we left for vacation. Everything had to be in its place: toys away, clothes washed and hung, floors vacuumed and swept. I hated it. We often cleaned until the minute we packed up the car to leave. Mom insisted there was no better feeling than coming home to a clean house to relax in after an exhausting vacation.

Mom was so right. (Are you reading this, Mom? You were right!)

When I get home from retreat, everything will be spic and span, files and research will be where I can find them, and my desk will be free of clutter to distract me from the writing momentum I hope to achieve while away.

2 – Evaluating Everything on my Writing Plate

My “writing plate” consists of everything I’ve ever started writing that hasn’t been sold yet. Big plate.

It includes the novel I’m shopping and the two novels I’m currently writing. It also includes a bunch of short stories that are languishing for whatever reason: plot holes, lack of market to send it to, forgotten about, not enough time to finish, etc. I also have some files of “vignettes” I started writing: scenes with wildly interesting characters or stories that petered out after the initial torrent of words spewed onto the page. Some are a mere sentence long; others, a few thousand words. And then, there’s the idea file: hundreds just laying there waiting to be written.

Lets not talk about non-fiction items.

I’m reviewing each article/fiction item/idea and evaluating what needs to be done to it in order for it to be marketable, and making a list of those items to work on while on retreat. There are several things I’m contemplating as I evaluate:

* How close is the piece to completion?
* If it’s complete, why is this piece still on the plate and not out making its rounds?
* What will it take to finish?
* Does it only need polishing? How long will that take?
* Does the item require more research before writing can continue?

Sadly, I have several stories that are finished and critiqued by my critique group. They only need the groups’ comments incorporated before sending out. These will be the top items on my list to complete.

(This would probably be a good time for me to make a “Master List” of all my files, along with notes of what needs to be done and how soon I think they can be completed. I should probably keep this kind of list up to date as I write…but I’m usually too busy writing to bother with the details… If I find time, I’ll probably do this while I’m evaluating.)

3 – Ranking the List

After reviewing all the items in my files, I’ll rank them in importance against my criteria (Should you feel compelled to try this insanely detailed system yourself, your criteria will likely be different, according to your goals). Items with the highest number of points at this stage will be put at the top of my list.

Below is my arbitrary point system. A story can meet multiple examples below and thus leap to the head of the pack with a very high score.

25 points Anything currently under a deadline, including self-imposed deadlines.
20 points All my completed, critiqued stories.
15 points Anything that’s almost done. Items that only need dedicated time at the computer to polish up.
15 points Any item in my “work in progress” directory that’s been there more than 12 months.
15 points Any non-fiction item – complete at 1500 words or less – for which the research is already done.
10 points Vignettes, story starters and scenes of 1000 words or more. (These may need additional evaluation later, to see if an actual story or plot emerges. For now, if I anticipate there may be time to work on any of these items while I’m gone, I’ll add them to the list.)
5 points Story ideas that might be worth tackling if there’s time.

Once everything is evaluated and ranked, I’ll return to my file cabinet and get any research or critiques which accompany the pieces and set them aside to take with me. Now will be a good time to make sure I pack any reference books I might need. (Of course I’ll take a good dictionary and thesaurus, but maybe my story set in ancient China will require me to pack the history book I was reading which inspired the tale…I’ll get that now and put it with the other items I plan to take.)

4 – Reviewing Market Lists (or: Modifying the Ranks)
There are many Web sites and newsletters which specialize in listing markets which are open to submissions. These are usually broken down by category, genre or closing date. I check several regularly: Ralan, Duotrope’s Digest, SpecFicWorld’s Market Database, to see if there are new or emerging markets than those I regularly submit to.

If any market looks interesting, I’ll review my list again and look for potential matches. I’ll add the points below to existing work and then re-rank the list, if necessary.

10 points Add to a story which might be a match for a market currently open to submissions.
15 points As above, if the market has a tight deadline.

The existence of an open market will allow me to focus even more on finishing an item.

5 – Making Sure All Completed Items are Out for Submission
While I’m doing all this record keeping, I’ll be updating my Submissions List: a spreadsheet of items I’ve got circulating to various markets. It’s an invaluable resource for me: I can see, among other things, what pieces are out and how long they’ve been at a particular market.

It’s also a nag.

A quick glance shows me which items have sat too long at particular markets, or (rats!) which pieces have been rejected – or whose rights have reverted back to me – and should have been submitted the day I got them back.

Ideally, those items shouldn’t have been left sitting, but sometimes I ignore the “business end” of being an author so that I can spend more time writing. So, before I leave, I’ll query, or resubmit, all those languishing items.

This isn’t a deal breaker. If I don’ manage to get this far, I’ll still go on retreat. But if I can manage it, all the better. How nice it would be to return not only to a clean desk, but a check in the mailbox!

So, that’s my plan. If I work hard enough before I go, I’ll have a roadmap for success (my weighted-list of projects to complete while I’m gone), a pristine work space to return to, and possibly an acceptance (or check!) in the mailbox as well.

As detailed as it sounds, I don’t intend to work the plan “no matter what.” Perhaps my muse will strike and I’ll work on (and one hopes, complete!) something new and exciting while I’m on retreat. If that happens, all the better. The prep work is still valuable…and puts me in the proper frame of mind for writing.

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